A little over a year ago, the principal of Public School 3 in New York City pulled me aside and said, "I think I have something you may be interested in." It was early, not my best time. I was dropping my son off for class and screaming kids were bouncing off the walls and slamming into me from every angle. I couldn't imagine anything interesting other than a cup of coffee and some early morning tunes to prepare for another chaotic day in the restaurant business. So, hanging back and doing the skeptical shuffle I followed the principle to the 5th floor.
This science classroom was built for the middle school students. But the middle school is moving out of the building. I knew immediately where she was going and I cut her off, "wow, there's a gas line in here, 3 sinks, a refrigerator...and an ice machine! It's like this was designed to be a demonstration kitchen." And so the idea for The Cooking Room was born. A classroom in a NYC Public School dedicated solely to teaching elementary school kids how to create tasty food with real, fresh, non-processed ingredients. I had never heard of anything like it.
I knew I couldn't get this moving all on my own, but as fortune would have it, good news travels almost as fast as bad news and I shortly had three fantastic team members to help this project get off the ground. One of whom was sent over by Dorothy Hamilton of the International Culinary Center / French Culinary Institute (ICC/FCI). I had reached out to Dorothy as I knew that the idea of creating a practical, hands on food education/cooking curriculum at the elementary school level would be of great interest to her.
Over the past year, we piloted a few different classes, most of which I taught to either the K/1 or the 2/3 grade levels (PS 3 groups grade levels...an age old practice at this progressive school). The classes were initially arranged by taste: sour, salty, sweet, bitter and then moved on to the building blocks of cooking which involve combining these different tastes. We cured anchovies, tasted bacon at 4 different stages, made tamarind soda, tempered chocolate, cracked cacao pods, and tasted every green I could find, from puntarelle to sorrel to lovage and on and on. The kids loved it! They ate caviar! But that was just a start; a test to see how they would respond.
What became clear to us was that The Cooking Room curriculum needed to dovetail with what was already being taught in the classroom. Each grade level has a different focus, whether it's reading comprehension, scientific observation or fractions. What we are doing is and will be supported even more by the teachers and the school administrators if we can reinforce what the kids are learning in their regular classrooms while also introducing a whole new world of flavors and techniques. So this summer, with the help of the ICC/FCI we are writing an official curriculum that shadows the grade appropriate curricula set forth by the Department of Education.
This will enable us to create a standardized program that can, hopefully, organically integrate itself into the curriculum goals of the school and, one day, serve as a model for other schools. To date, Marion, Claudia, Phil (team Cooking Room) and I have been buying the product and much of the equipment out-of-pocket or it has been donated by Fatty Crab or Fatty 'Cue. The school parents and teachers have donated time and equipment as well. Simultaneously, our school also introduced WITS (Wellness in the Schools) into the cafeteria and a garden project down at The Battery from which The Cooking Room and my restaurants (when school is out of session) get all types of produce. For a grassroots group of volunteers we've taken great leaps forward in terms of food education and food quality.
The next steps require additional money to further outfit the classroom, formalize the curriculum and hire some part time teachers. The Cooking Room is now able to raise funds as it has recently become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. I have enlisted many of my friends and colleagues who work at and own restaurants in the West Village and beyond to contribute their time and teach classes in the Fall and Spring semesters 2011-2012. The goal: teach kids how to work with real, healthy, raw ingredients to prepare tasty food and learn that there are palatable alternatives to processed junk food. 2011-2012 promises to be even a greater leap forward!
Donations to The Cooking Room can be made at thecookingroom.org.
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